What is a Plea Deal, or a Plea Agreement?
In my last post I discussed the process for getting a criminal case dismissed. And as was discussed in the last blog post, the chances of a case being dismissed by the prosecutor are relatively slim. What the prosecutor is frequently willing to do though is work out a plea deal with the defendant and the defendant’s criminal defense attorney. For those of you not familiar with what a plea deal is, read on.
As was discussed in my last video blog, the legal system in Idaho, and the United States for that matter, is an ‘adversarial system’. The prosecutor (an adversary) plays for the team that wants to convict you of as much as possible, and the criminal defense attorney (the other adversary) plays for the defendant who wants to have all the charges dismissed. The prosecutor and defense attorney can get what they want for their side by going to trial and winning, but there is a great risk of losing at trial for both sides, more or less so depending on the strength or weakness of the case. The burden on the prosecuting attorney is great in a criminal trial, they must prove the guilt of the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant on the other hand has so much to lose, including years of his life. Neither side typically wants to risk losing everything at trial. So the two sides will often try to work out a negotiated settlement to each side’s mutual benefit. It is this settlement that we call a ‘plea deal’ or ‘plea agreement’.
Plea deals will consist of a plea of guilty to some criminal charge, either the charge (or charges) that the defendant was charged with, or an amended lesser offense, or the defendant can plead to a combination of original and amended charges, and the prosecutor can even dismiss some of the charges in exchange for a guilty plea to some charges. But a plea deal will require pleading guilty to some charge, or else it is not a plea deal you are asking for, it is a dismissal you are requesting. The only exception to this is when the parties work out a ‘conditional dismissal’ where the prosecutor promises to dismiss the charge on the condition that they do certain things, like take alcohol, parenting, substance abuse, and other types of classes, or pay a certain amount of restitution, or do some other similar thing that would satisfy the prosecutor that a conviction is not needed. This is a rare type of agreement though, and is usually relegated to very minor offenses.
A plea agreement will also usually include an agreement from the prosecutor to recommend a certain sentence. Now it is important to note that this recommendation is not normally binding on the court. A court typically maintains discretion to sentence the defendant to any sentence the court deems fair up to the maximum penalty allowed under law. More often than not the court will follow the agreement though, if for no other reason than to ensure that cases get resolved expeditiously. There is one circumstance where this is not the case though, and that is in Rule 11 agreements, I wrote about these type of agreements previously. Additionally, the prosecutor will usually allow the defense attorney to argue for a lesser sentence, which means that the defendant has the possibility of getting an even better deal from the judge (but again it could always be worse too).
Plea agreements are a good option when you are attempting to mitigate the risk involved in your freedom being taken away. Whether you should take a plea deal or not is something that should be analyzed on a case by case basis, and never without discussing your decision with an attorney. There are many factors that should be considered, and discussing such an incredibly important decision with a lawyer who works with plea agreements on a regular basis is necessary and prudent.